Is Lisbon on Your Bucket List?

If Lisbon isn’t on your bucket list, you need to get it on there.  Right now.

Why? Great food, amazing history, beautiful sights, wonderful side trips, friendly people, affordable hotels, great public transportation, and relatively painless flights–what more could you want?

Our stay in Lisbon was just long enough to convince us that we have to return to spend more time taking in everything that it has to offer.

Although the weather wasn’t perfect during our visit, it certainly was better than what we are experiencing today, the day after Easter, here in New Jersey!  But then, snow days are made for us retirees to look through our travel photos and blog about our sojourn.   Am I right?

Because we were on a Grand Circle Tour (Sister company of Overseas Adventure) our time was planned for us, with a guided tour that included Lisbon’s more popular sights.

The Parque of Eduardo VII was a great vantage point, offering a panoramic view of the city and the Tagus River.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a European city tour unless you stopped at a cathedral.  This one, at the Jeronimos Monastery, happens to be  Vasco de Gama’s final resting spot.  It is also the place where explorers and sailors went to pray before heading off on their journeys to the edge of the earth.

To honor those seamen, the cathedral roof was designed to resemble sailors ropes and knots.  You can’t tell from the photo–you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

At the end of our visit, JuanJo, our tour guide, surprised us with a special treat, the custard tart for which Portugal is famous.  This particular bakery is supposedly the one that does it best because it was the sole recipient of a super secret recipe, developed by monks. IMG_6286This recipe is as closely guarded as the coca cola formula, or so we were told.  I didn’t have the heart to share that I had equally delicious custard tarts from a bakery in Beja.  I was told the nuns developed THEIR recipe to use up egg yokes.  Why?  Because they used the egg whites to starch their colors and headgear, so had a mountain of excess yokes they didn’t want to waste.  IMG_6287  On our drive to Belem Tower, we passed this street art, made entirely of garbage.  The raccoon’s eyes are discarded tires!

Sorry the photo is so pixilated–it was shot from the bus, with my iPhone.  But I hope you can see that this is a beautiful and imaginative piece.  The artist, Artur Bordalo, has created many murals throughout Lisbon.  What I didn’t realize was that I had seen his work already, in beautiful Beja.  Remember the rooster from my earlier post?  Check out Bordalo’s signature at the bottom right.  I loved that rooster even BEFORE I learned it was constructed out of cast off materials.

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The Belem Tower was built in the early 1500’s near the mouth of the Tagus river to defend Lisbon from the bad guys.  Really?  THIS is what their fortress looks like?  All decorative and ornate?  It looks more like Cinderella’s Castle than Fort Apache!

The second landmark on this side of the Targus River is the Monument to the Discoveries, created in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator.

IMG_6300What is really cool is the pavement in front of the monument, a mosaic map of the world, complete with ships and mermaids.

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Climbing the sides of the monument are important Portuguese historical figures, like Vasco da Gama, Magellan and of course, Prince Henry at the front.  St Francis Xavier made it onto the monument, but not into my photo.

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Across the Tagus you can see what looks like a cross.  It is actually a statue of Christ, with arms outspread like the one in Brazil.  IMG_6340
Also notice the bridge.  Remind you of any place in the USA?

After hitting many of Lisbon’s “must see” attractions in the morning, we had the afternoon to wander.  Our hotel, the Mundial,  was ideally located near cafes, shops, restaurants, and beautiful squares, perfect for people watching while munching on one of those delightful pastries.

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Believe it or not, this square is perfectly flat.  Those “waves” are a pavement optical illusion!

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Loved the sand sculptures

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School outing, maybe?

Dinner that evening was in a former Moorish palace that was briefly a casino before becoming the restaurant– La Casa Do Alentejo.  We dined in the gorgeous private room on the third floor.

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Okay, so I had a little wine before taking this picture, but I at least I DID get the decorative ceiling and the mirrors on the walls!

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The second floor was beautiful too, with tiled walls

The next day we visited the Royal Palace in Sintra.  Sintra is a lovely little city an easy day trip from Lisbon.

IMG_6359As one would expect, the Royal Palace was filled with beautiful art and treasures of all kinds.  I particularly liked this chandelier.  Hard to believe, but my iPhone 7 took a better photo than my Panasonic Lumix.

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The other unique item that caught my eye was this painting.  That sure looks like a negligee that he’s (our guide said it was St. John the Baptist–but who knows) either wearing or holding in front of him, and is that a toy horse?  If not, then what is it?  This has to be one of the strangest paintings I’ve seen in a LOOOONG time!

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On our way back to Lisbon, we stopped at Cascais, a lovely seaside town, which is even closer to  Lisbon, and is serviced by frequent trains.  We arrived just in time for the heavens to open in a colossal downpour, but no biggie.  We were with 36 new friends, so several of us ducked into a restaurant where we enjoyed delicious roasted chicken, great wine and even better companionship.  No photos of our bedraggled, sodden group will ever be posted.  I promise!

Because I had spent two weeks with Global Volunteers before joining the tour, I was able to visit Evora, another great site about an hour by bus from Lisbon.  But I’ll save that for another post.

Portugal in general and Lisbon in particular will not disappoint!

Beja, Portugal’s Hidden Gem

Tired of touristy places? Want an “authentic”experience, where the locals are friendly, gracious and actually happy to see you? Yet ANOTHER advantage of serving as a Global Volunteer is the organization finds these places FOR you –places I would probably never would have discovered on my own.

I feel like I’ve been dropped into a magical spot. The lovely city of Beja just oozes charm. Its cobblestone streets haphazardly lead in many different directions, much worse than in Boston. Who would have thought that was even possible? Fortunately, in Beja, you can WALK everywhere–to work assignments, to dinner, for coffee, to the bus station, to its many attractions.

Streets are pretty quiet before 9 AM, but things liven up around 10:30, the “official” coffee break time.

Art is EVERYWHERE. Here are just a few examples. This sculpture is controversial. It reminds me of trees. What do YOU see?]

Even the tunnels are artistic.

In 1983, while excavating for a house’s foundation, Roman ruins were uncovered. The property’s owner was persuaded to build his house elsewhere, and voila, by 2004, this architecturally intriguing museum was created.  Okay, so in Italy you can visit all kinds of ruins, but in Beja you can walk OVER them, atop a glass floor.  For those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of another museum visit, this is the right place for you. Small, but oh so interesting.

I couldn’t figure out how to photograph the dwelling’s private bath.  Here’s my poor attempt.  Guess you’ll just have to go there.

Although the residents were aware of Pax Julia’s importance to the Romans, (Beja’s name back then), they didn’t know that the area had been inhabited much, much earlier. The museum contains artifacts dating back to 3000 BC. The Nucleo Muselogogico ( The name is almost as big as the museum) is free, as are the blue booties you wear to protect the glass floor.

Close by is the Regional Museum, which was originally a convent for women. Across the street is the theater, formerly the convent for men. The passageway that once ran between the two buildings (no doubt only used by the servants, to carry supplies back and forth), no longer exists.

The Regional Museum is the only one that charges a fee–just two Euros, and it is well worth it. In addition to all of the precious church items,

St John the Baptist

there is also a fine exhibit showing the process for restoring paintings. If seeing how St. Bartholomew was flayed is your thing, then you definitely need to find your way to the paintings room.

If instead, you are a literature buff, you can go upstairs to view the window through which Sr. Mariana gazed longingly, awaiting the return of her knight in shining armor. Yes, the author of the famous “Letters of a Portuguese Nun” lived in this very convent.

I mistakenly thought that being sent off to a convent was not a fate I would have desired. But that was BEFORE our guide pointed out its many advantages: unlike married women, who became their husband’s servants, rich girls got to bring THEIR servants WITH them to the convent. Freed from toil, they were educated, spending their days praying, reading and being waited on. I never thought of it quite like that. An additional bonus? You didn’t die in childbirth. Of course, there was always a chance you could be bricked into a wall, if you made a real good friend across the passageway, who got to know you in the biblical sense.

On the outskirts of town is the fortress (they refer to it as a castle) with the tallest tower on the Iberian peninsula. It has 198 steps and is 40 meters high (or 131 feet, but it is already on a hill, so it feels even higher).

Jeanne, Laurie and Heidi

Can you imagine trying to navigate these steps, wearing your armor while trying to dodge arrows and rocks, or whatever they were using back then?

I’ve been told you can see Spain from the top. But then, they could tell me I could see Russia from there, and I probably would have believed them.

The view from the top. Could that be Spain on the horizon?

The Hotel Bejense is a great choice if you are looking for the 4 C’s: clean, comfortable, cheap. For about $57 a night, you get a small room, with a private bath (complete with hair dryer, and towel warmers), breakfast, great Wi-Fi, a flat screenTV with many English channels, on a pedestrian walkway. Right next door a pastry shop with incredibly delicious offerings. Good thing we walk so much, because we are visiting the pastry shop at least once a day, sometimes more.

Entrance to the Hotel Bejense.

If you want to splurge and spend almost $90 per night, (off season rate ) you can always stay at the nearby Pousada de Sao Francisco, another former convent.

Four of us opted to have lunch there and to conduct our own self guided tour. I know what my sisters are thinking, so I will answer the question. YES, we WERE allowed to wander through the convent.

Speaking of food, you won’t go hungry in Beja. You have LOTS of choices, from the rather expensive (non Global Volunteer lunch at the Pousada) to the incredibly affordable and everything in between. My favorite restaurant is Les Infantes, where we were served fantastic “Tuscan Pasta Salad”. Take my word for it, if you are in Beja, you HAVE to try it.

Les Infantes, early in he evening, before it got busy.

Beja—a small city with a big heart!

 

Beja, Week One

Our first week in Beja has concluded, and what a wonderful week it was!

I’ve been asked many times about the kind of person who does a Global Volunteer project, so here’s a brief description of the 10 fantastic people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, complete with a visual.

Cisco (front row) is the first Australian Global Volunteer I’ve ever encountered. (He could possibly be the first Australian in Global Volunteer’s history). We all LOVE this extremely creative and talented guy. A graphic art designer by training, he has done so many other things, it is hard to believe he is only 31 years old. I suspect his Beja students are most impressed by his disc jockey experience, but I love hearing about the awards he won while working on a Disney cruise ship. He is “bloody ripper”. (Yes, Cisco is teaching me to speak Aussie).

Also in the front row is our fearless leader, Joe. It feels like EVERYBODY in Beja knows Joe. Coming here for ten years, leading two teams per year (February and September), Joe knows all of the assignments, and has done an amazing job matching us up so everyone is happy.

Joe has sampled just about every eating establishment in the area, so we are enjoying a wide variety of delicious cuisines.

Weekends are usually free time, however Joe very graciously organized a guided tour of Beja on Saturday morning, followed by an excursion to the Serpa cheese festival in the afternoon. Sunday we spent the day visiting the historic town of Evora.

My dear friend Jeanne is in row 2. Jeanne has decades of middle school experience, so she was paired with Heidi ( back row), who is a first time volunteer. Any trip with Jeanne is guaranteed to be fun. Her positive outlook on life is the gift that keeps on giving.

Next to Jeanne is Cindy, from Connecticut. She is a retired Spanish teacher, who has spent last week working in a variety of schools with Dale (last row, Heidi’s husband). Cindy has done a number of GV trips, and is returning to Queretaro, Mexico this October. For those of you who wonder if you could volunteer as a single woman, Cindy is your role model.

Laurie is between Cindy and me. Jeanne, Laurie and I all met Continue reading